In the past 2 months, I’ve been to Seoul four times. I was right– I don’t hate Korea, just banal suburban existence and a bad start. Why do I know this? Because I love Seoul! Seoul is a city with neighborhoods of changing character. So far i’ve found my 9 favorite neighborhoods in Seoul.
What is the Korean formula for cities?
There’s something to the saying “If you’ve seen one Korean city, you’ve seen them all“.
Cities here make themselves pretty redundant by using a repetitive ‘urban formula’ .
Apartment high-rise communities, which stand like graveyard tombstones, fresh markets with food hawkers grilling items for a standing crowd, cellphone shops blaring K-pop tunes, theme parks with cutesy bouquet statues and enough neon light signs to make your eyes go ga-ga.
Well, how dynamic can Korea get in a city?
Seoul’s dazzling urban design makes it a city you’ll want to see.
As the international capital in Korea, Seoul certainly lays distinction to more futuristic and modern urban design sensibilities. Neighborhood themes vibe with their own influences of innovation, art and architecture, spanning the globe from European chic to Soho stylish, British punk and Tokyo Crazy.
This metropolis brings the color back to my cheeks and has me dreaming big city BIG, so much that I feel about it the way Carrie Bradshaw feels about shoes! Life can feel crappy, until she walks into a shoe shop and if traveling Korea is my shoe shop, then Seoul is my Manolo Blahniks!
9 Neighborhoods to Make you Fall in Love with Seoul
1. Forbidden Itaewon
Some say avoid Itaewon, I say Go into it! According to resident guide and fellow expat, Raymond Hahn, Itaewon touts an infamous history- both rough and violent – as it is the foremost place to welcome foreigners and marginalized mainstream. With Hooker Hill, Homo Hill and Trans bars, Itaewon also boasts the largest mosque in Korea. Grit, grime and dirty foreigners. Upfront, Itaewon might appear trashy and ragged around the edges. Think of it as a Little Tangiers.
For expats living in an ethnocentric country, this neighborhood will burn the most color you’ll ever find in one spot in all of Korea. It boasts a grainy mix of foreigners- GI’s to Muslims, Africans, Indians, Russians, etc…
Inhale the spices from Indian and Muslim markets and kabob stands. Taste a whiff of Nag Champa incense or even nosh on some Mexican food up the block. Dine at one of the many ethnic restaurants here and check out the Indian, Muslim or African black markets for foods imported from home!
This is the neighborhood, where I finally gave into a Subway sandwich. The moment I saw the Subway sandwich store from the bus, I knew it’d be like life-long lovers meeting up after years.
There was a hookup. Several, in fact.
Where to stay in Itaewon: a decent breakdown of places to stay in Itaewon.
2. Posh Apgujeong
In Seoul, when someone walks by you in a face mask, you have to wonder if it’s the sign of an ailment or ‘procedure’. In Apgujeong the latter is your best bet! A hotspot for medical tourism, plastic surgery and the celebrity circuit (dans wannabes), this neighborhood is the IT spot for those who want to see and be seen. Dubbed the Beverly Hills of Seoul , its streets flavor a bit of Parisian chic and houses small boutiques, cozy cafes, designer shops, wine bars and restaurants. The quietly quaint streets offer valet service to clients of top-tier luxury restaurants and clothing stores.
Apgujeong was once, historically known as a wealthy neighborhood, where families sent their children abroad for education. Those children came back, bringing their international designs and worldly sense with them to make this area what it is now. Today, it is one of the poshest and trendiest neighborhoods in Seoul.
Visit the Barbie store, to accessorize and dress like a real-life Barbie doll. Or get mani and pedicures at the Dashing Diva Nail Salon. Finally, just explore the area to see if you can find any Korean drama locations (photo below).
Getting to Apgujeong: Apgujeong Station, Exit 2 will land you near the busy section of plastic surgery clinics. The more trendy part of the area is about a 10 minute walk towards Cheongdam.
3. Expensive and elegant Cheongdam
If a thirty-something elegance is your thing, then Cheongdam is more your style.
The area patrons galleries, cafes, designer stores, bridal salons and some pretty cool and modern architectural designs. Turn off the surface street & you’ll find galleries and boutiques quietly tucked into the side and back streets!
Preening down Luxury Good Street, you’ll be shocked to see designer flagship stores and multi-shops taking up practically a block’s worth of real estate! Maybe you might even spot your favorite K-pop stars at SM Town, one of K-pop’s lead recruiting agencies. Walking or driving down this street, unless you have the proper sugar daddy funds, you’ll probably feel out of your league window shopping here. Still, its worth the spectacle!
Getting to Cheongdam: It’s about a 10 minute walk from either Apgujeong Station, Exit 2 or Cheongdam Station, Exit 8. To get to SM Town, I’d take the Cheongdam Station.
Where to stay: Obviously not a cheap neighborhood and not known for hotels. You might find deals towards the Gangnam and Coex Mall area .
4. Traditional arts in Insadong
Insadong‘s main vein is the walking street, which consists of about five blocks, lined with art galleries and stores selling traditional and handmade crafts. Off-shoot alleys house traditionally-styled restaurants which strive towards the traditional Korean flavor. Why not have a meal and give makeoli (Korean rice wine) a shot?
This folksy neighborhood has a very low-key and inviting vibe and makes for a great Sunday afternoon stroll. Shop for traditional crafts or eat at one of the many traditional restaurants.
Getting to Insadong: *Anguk Station, Exit 6* or Jonggak Station, Exit 3.
Adjacent to Insadong and Gyeongbukgung Palace is Samcheondong, a sparkling jewel of a neighborhood I wouldn’t have discovered if I didn’t wander where the long row of galleries led me. If you’re an art lover like me, you ‘ll have the opportunity to see what current exhibitions are surviving Seoul’s art scene! Seoul has a gallery walk of contemporary galleries and museums, located conveniently across the street of Gyeongbukgung Palace (photo below).
Taking in the contemporary art gallery scene of Seoul
Continuing on this street, you’ll hit Samcheondong-gil, the heart vein of Samcheondong. Here, contemporary art knocks up against funky graphic design fonts, chic galleries and designer boutiques to make its own fun statement. What gives this neighborhood both, a unique retro and urban electric charm is the traditional hanok houses in the backdrop, reminding you of a distant time! Into Samcheondong’s hilly climb sits the Bukchon Hanok Village (constructed in the 1930’s during the Joseon Era) where you can feel the old world charm cohabit with the youthful urban scene nearby.
My recommendation: Grab a waffle at one of the trendy waffle cafes to see what the Korean rage is all about! Then explore the side streets or climb into the hilly or hanok areas. You’ll see art murals, daily Korean culture and tucked away coffee houses, which might just be a neighborhood’s best kept secret.
Samcheongdong’s public mural arts on walls in the neighborhood
6. Young, fun and cafe-fresh in Hongdae
Hongdae, feels a tad like the bar and club scenes of New York’s East Village. The Hongik University fortress is an impressive rainbow crown to the end of the main drag. The area feeds a young alternative, night club crowd that might bring your best Tim Burton impressions into life. There’s thematic restaurants from hip, funky and fun! Go club-hopping at the bars and clubs of Hongdae or hit the quirky café themes of the likes of Hello Kitty, The Coffee Prince Cafe (aka Tirimisu Cafe), Charlie Brown and the Bau Haus Dog Cafe, where dogs mingle with their own bow-wow crowd.
Perhaps you’d like to rent out your own private two-level norae-bang room for you and your friends to belt your karaoke lungs out loud, in living room fashion. See: Hello Kitty Cafe or The Coffee Prince Cafe
Getting to Hongdae: Hongik University Station
Where to stay: Tons of budget options in Hongdae. This neighborhood has hotels to hostels/guesthouses, starting in the mid $20s range. I stayed at a hostel in this area, but didn’t love it enough to recommend it.
7. Shopping at Myeongdong
Myeongdong is a vast and overwhelming maze of stores, Korean restaurants, cafes and street vendors selling street food like dried squid and clothing accessories. Situated in the cosmopolitan shade of Seoul it tows enough wattage and electric signs to stand proud as the queen bee shoppers fashion catwalk. Tons of skin care product and makeup stores to light up your fancy and if the girl from the shop offers you a basket, take one. Usually there’s some nice welcome freebies inside them. Go during the day and find the shop which sells ice cream on a cone that’s almost a foot in height.
Getting to Myeongdong: Myeongdong station
Where to stay in Myeongdong: Understandably, a lot of shoppers want to stay in this area. My family enjoyed staying at the PJ Hotel (my review here). It was a little distant from the main shopping arena and required a taxi, but it had free shuttle service to certain hotel locations in Seoul. Here’s other Myeongdong options.
8. Performing Arts in Dehangno
Energetic, youthful and theatrical. There are live street performance acts put on by university kids in the park and a flurry of posters advertise black box venues in Korean drama, comedy and improv.
Like Hongdae, Dehangno is another college area, with stores to shop in and cafes to eat at. Looking for something different to do, there’s a Lock Museum (it’s filled with the history of locks) or check out Inhwa Mural Village (photos here). If you’re a fan of Korean drama, you’ve probably seen it in Rooftop Prince. It’s a village that college students decided to paint murals in to beautify it. Murals and paintings are tucked away in the parts of the village. See how many you can find.
Getting to Dehangno: Hyewha station
9. Romance at Namsan Seoul Tower’s Locks of Love
If you want to know the exact spot I fell in love with Seoul, it’s Namsan Seoul Tower. Day or night, it feels magical. The highest point in Seoul with the best view of the city, you’ll reflect on what the city itself, offers in possibility. It’s not far from Myeongdong and catch the cable car up.
Finding Seoul: Lockets of Love Seoul
For friends and lovers, take a pair of lockets to the Locks of Love and renew your vows of loyalty, as all of Seoul looks on. Take a bus to the top, take the cable car or hike. Take the cable car up and re-live that K-drama’s Boys Before Flowers scene, when Gu Jun Pyo and Jan Di are trapped overnight in a cable car!